Girl Factory by Jim Krusoe : 2008 novel that initially seems to come from the McSweeney’s school of funny premises (women suspended in yogurt), but then, like the comics of Jason, takes that premise to examine some slippery moral questions and the big themes of life and death. Krusoe is very good at a number of things:
—Creating a system of metaphors (mostly involving yogurt) that is determined by the unlikely images within the story, so that a crayon drawing that looks like “claw marks on the inside of a jar filled with yogurt” 1) is a functional, not outlandish, metaphor, 2) keeps the story tightly knit, and 3) is very funny.
—Mocking the clumsy exposition (those moments when the narrator goes into a trance to remember some detail of his past), functional dialogue (“Instead, I propose that we all stay behind, and you try to take a nap”) and fetishistic detail (the father’s death scene, in which every image lays the pathos on real thick) of more “serious” writing by indulging in them himself for the sake of discomfort and/or humor.
—Also: long sentences; crosscutting for ironic effect
It’s not all cute tricks, though. The narrator, for all his psychosis, never seems like anything but a normal, and one who cares very deeply about animals. It is very affecting when those mice die, and then the rat, and then all those women, as he bungles it again and again, and even more affecting when he lists all of the dead in one especially masterful long sentence.
Amphigorey by Edward Gorey : A collection of short works by the man who first entered my consciousness under the category of “famed children’s illustrator.” What I’ve read so far doesn’t seem especially intended for children. One of the pieces features limericks about subjects as diverse as a group of hairy Harvard men burning a fairy and a woman who feels she has become unsexed (Gorey’s word, not mine). The best, though, is one called “The Unstrung Harp,” about a novelist in the process of writing his new book. I read it just before beginning my own writing last week, and laughed in recognition (that old thing) a number of times: when he ponders how to insert exposition into a completely unrelated scene; when he moves through the house, with his permanently petrified expression, picking up loose objects before putting down a sentence. Later, the author is embarrassed to find his book sitting in a shop window; that and other modest skewerings of the publishing process seem to be sadly perfect, little as I know about it.
Mystery Train by Greil Marcus : Marcus is the epitome of the 1970s American rock critic, so no surprise that this book is so male-centric. Its subtitle is “Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and while I don’t think Marcus believes that women haven’t contributed any worthwhile images of their own, there is a curious absence. That caveat aside, it really is a shame that this sort of writing is a lost art today. I’ve read so far Marcus’s musings on Robert Johnson and The Band; he digs deeply into the lyrics, the landscape, packs in the literary allusions, and still writes in a way that feels more perfectly suited for a rock mag than an academic journal.
One more caveat: Marcus says in the forward that he is writing about connections in the American imaginary that already exist, not merely synthesizing his own interests, but really, I believe it is more the latter. I don’t see how Randy Newman and Sly Stone inherently belong together
Other recent reads:
Searching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick : I guess any book about Robert Johnson benefits from the inherent fascination of the Johnson mythology, though this one struck me as very well done, especially in the way it describes the greater relevance of his work. Guralnick writes that Johnson “was suddenly elevated to significance by an act of creative will, by a synthesis of all he knew, of all he ever was to be,” and while that may be overstating it, it is the same sort of thing (in the same hyperbolic terms) that I’ve recently been writing about. This book proved relevant to my own “short novel,” and surprisingly so, in a number of ways: thinking about a time when musical discovery could take place in a void; thinking about the rudimentary ways music was recorded in bygone eras.
We Disappear continued to seem like a book I might write, and that sense of kinship with the author (reinforced by his blog) was more satisfying than the story itself. It lost some of its interest toward the end, but as a tribute to Heim’s mother it is very touching.
Little as I’ve been reading, the best writing I’ve encountered recently is from the best comedy of recent years, Tropic Thunder, which I watched again the other day. I transcribed my favorite scene, for my personal amusement and for easy reference. I’ve labeled the actors 1, 2 and 3, as it seems somehow improper to be absolute about their names. Here it is:
1: You gonna focus up now motherfucker and say it. “It’s me, Tugg.”
2: It’s me, Tugg.
1: That’s right, now Tugg who?
2: Tugg who? I don’t know, who are you?
1: Me, I know who I am. I’m a dude playin’ a dude disguised as another dude. You’re a dude that don’t know what dude he is.
2: Or are you a dude who has no idea what dude he is and claims to know what dude he is by playing other dudes?
1: I know what dude I am.
2: You’re scared.
1: I ain’t scared. Scared of what?
2: Or scared of who?
1: Scared of who?
2: Scared of you.
3: What’s going on?
2: The dudes are merging.
I’ve long thought that “the dudes are merging” is the sure-thing catchphrase that never was, but watching the movie a second time, I’m pretty sure I heard it as “the dudes are emerging.” “Emerging” is funny enough, but not nearly as funny as “merging,” so I stubbornly insist that the latter is still the proper reading.